A Scottish Christmas

MY DEBUT NOVEL, A Dream of Death, will be published by Crooked Lane Books in April of 2019. The setting, a fictional island in the Inner Hebrides, reflects the metaphoric “island” in Buffalo, New York, where my Scottish grandparents immersed themselves in all things Scottish and dreamt of the “auld country.”

To celebrate, I’m posting two special Scottish recipes, the first from my grandmother and the second from her best friend. Both are amazing and straight from early 1900s Scotland.

Flora Campbell’s Christmas Yum-Yum Cake

1-1/2 c. large seeded raisins

1 c. dates, cut up

1 c. dried prunes, cut up

2 c. sugar

2 c. boiling water

5 T. butter

The night before: Put this on to boil. Simmer gently for 20 minutes. Cool.

In the morning add:

3-1/2 c. sifted flour

1/2 t. baking soda

2 t. cinnamon

1 t. cloves

1 t. salt

1/2 c. nuts (any kind; optional)

Mix with a wooden spoon, transfer to a loaf pan, and bake 1 to 1-1/2 hours at 350 degrees. Cool completely before slicing

Meg Murchie’s Scottish Scones

2 c. flour

1/2 t. salt

1 t. cream of tartar

3/4 t. baking soda (level)

1 t. baking powder

2 dessert spoons of sugar (about a tablespoon)

2 dessert spoons of butter (about a tablespoon)

1 beaten egg

1 c. buttermilk

Mix dry ingredients. Rub in shortening with fingertips. Add beaten egg and buttermilk. Halve the dough and cut into four pieces. Bake on lightly oiled griddle.


My New Best Friends

TelemarketingA recent post on the Jungle Red Writers’ Blog, “On Killing Rachel,” (http://www.jungleredwriters.com/2014/11/on-killing-rachel.html) reminded me of my three new best friends 

No one has been more faithful to me than these three, often calling several times a day. No one shows more friendly enthusiasm and genuine concern for my welfare. Of course, the fact that I’ve never met them is a bit worrisome.

Do you think I’m being stalked?

The first (and most persistent) of my faithful friends is Brigitte from Card Holder Services. She worries that I’m paying too much interest on my credit card. Actually I never pay interest on my credit card, but Brigitte is still concerned–so concerned that sometimes, when Brigitte is busy, she asks her friend Rachel to call me. Now I don’t condone lying, but I must confess I am sorely tempted to give her bogus information. Just to put her mind at rest, you understand.  

Another faithful friend is Richard from India. Sometimes he calls himself by another name, but I know it’s him. He works for “Microsoft Technical Department” (impressive, right?), and he thinks I may have a computer virus. He wonders if I’m online and offers to take control of my system and eliminate a virus infection. I hate to be skeptical, but I sometimes wonder if Richard really has my best interests at heart. Once I told him he sounded like a nice person, but I was pretty sure he was trying to scam me. Was he offended? Not a bit. He was encouraged. 

My third faithful friend (and the newest) is Carla. She thinks I’ve been working too hard and wants to give me a free cruise. I may take her up on it.

Dream, Dream, Dream

dreamsThe main character in my mystery, young widow Kate Hamilton, contemplates the significance of dreams:

All you have to do is dream, the Everly Brothers promised. If only it were that simple. She’d never once dreamt of Bill, though she’d often tried—poring over old photographs, pulling up memories. All she had now were memories and an empty bed.

Have you ever wished for a dream or tried to dream about something? Experts say that dreams express what is on our minds. Dreams are stories we tell ourselves. So, in theory, if we fill our minds with something before bedtime, we should dream about it, right? In my experience it doesn’t work that way.

Do you remember your dreams? My husband claims not to remember them. I usually do, often in great detail. Some dreams are common to people all over the world. Here’s how four universal dreams manifest themselves in the western world:

* The School Dream (Unpreparedness)
It’s time for final exams, and you realize you’ve forgotten to attend any of the
classes. Or all your books are in your locker, and you can’t remember the
* The Flying Dream (Aspirations)
You have the ability to fly or to float above the ground. In my version, it’s
not so much flying as “treading air.” And I can surf down a staircase in a
single bound. Now that’s fun.
* The Clothing Dream (Inadequacy, Embarrassment)
You leave the house for the day, only to discover that you haven’t put on
quite enough clothing. Yikes.
* The Chase Dream (Fear)
Someone is chasing you, but you’re running through molasses. Or you’re
stuck in slow motion.
* The Repeated Act Dream (Frustration)
There’s something you must do, like phone someone. But you keep
misdialing. You try again and again but never succeed.

“A dream is a wish your heart makes,” Cinderella famously sang in Disney’s classic movie. Dreams often express our hidden desires or fears. The famous opening line in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is an example: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” When my husband and I were raising children and unable to travel, I often dreamt I was in Europe. Sometimes, in the dream, I’d wonder if I was dreaming, so I’d pinch myself and think, “Nope, this time I’m really here.”

People dream differently. Some dreams are quite realistic. Others are bizarre—new worlds in which the laws of nature are suspended. Some people even dream in symbols or metaphors. A friend of mine, on the eve of sending her oldest child off to college, dreamt that her daughter was literally tied to her apron, and she had to get a giant scissors to cut the string. In the Bible, God often spoke to people in dreams. Some people think He still does. The Apostle Paul, for example, was trying to take the Gospel north and east until he was redirected by the vision of a man saying (Acts 16:9), “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” He woke up, and the Gospel went west to Europe.

Some dreams are hard to shake off. Another friend dreamt once that her very sweet husband had done something really mean. The next day she had a hard time forgiving him. Who hasn’t woken from a dream, relieved that it isn’t real, and yet the memory and emotions persist? Sometimes dreams are so wonderful that we hope to pick up where we left off the next night. Never happens.

Many people have repeated dreams. Here are two of mine.

1. The Teaching Nightmare
For twenty-four years I’ve taught a large women’s Bible study during the school year. Every year in August I have my teaching nightmare. Usually it’s the  first day of class, and I’ve forgotten to prepare a lecture. Or I’ve forgotten to get leaders. Or we’ve changed meeting locations, but I don’t know where. Once I dreamt that my lecture notes fell off the podium, and I just couldn’t get them back in order so everybody had to go home. I’ve had the dream so often now, I laugh about it.

2. The Sub-Human People Dream (weird alert)
Just had this one two nights ago. I come upon colonies of people who aren’t quite human and have sub-human intelligence but their own culture. They look like people except they’re a funny color and sort of triangular shaped with tapering heads on which they wear colorful striped hats resembling a Turkish fez. They’re not scary. Just strange and fascinating. And they have a name which I never can remember when I’m awake. Something like “Mosers.”

Last week I read a blog listing the “Top Ten Ways Not to Begin Your Novel.” Number 4 was waking up from a dream. Maybe, like the famous final episode of The Bob Newhart Show, it’s a better way to end.

Do you have interesting or unusual dreams? Repeated dreams? I’d love to hear about them.



hang in thereper·se·ver·ance

noun \ˌpər-sə-ˈvir-ən(t)s\ First known use: 14th century

:The quality that allows someone to continue trying to do something even though it is difficult : Continued effort to do or achieve something despite opposition : Steady persistence in a course of action

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” Samuel Johnson, Johnsonian Miscellanies, Vol 2.

About a year and a half ago, a friend and successful mystery writer told me, “Writing a novel takes persistence. And when you think you’re done, you’re probably not.”

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear at the time. But she was right. And as I slog my way through the fourth major revision of my manuscript, I tell myself that I may not be at the end of the process yet, but I am drilling down toward the goal, and that’s what counts.

One source of encouragement is the experience of others. Most successful writers will admit to a flood of rejection letters. Some stories are legendary. Here’s a sampling:

  • Agatha Christie endured five years of rejection before publishing The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring the little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.
  • C. S. Lewis, author of The Narnia Chronicles, received over 800 rejections before he published a single piece of writing.
  • William Faulkner received this rejection letter: “If the book had a plot and structure, we might suggest shortening and revisions, but it is so diffuse that I don’t think this would be of any use.”
  • J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected repeatedly until the eight-year-old daughter of an editor demanded to read the rest of the book.
  • Dr. Seuss was told about his first book, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, “too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
  • Louisa May Alcott was told to stick to teaching.
  • Madeleine L’Engel‘s classic A Wrinkle in Time was turned down 26 times before it was published.
  • George Orwell was told of Animal Farm, “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”
  • Louise Penny, author of the Gamache mystery series set in Canada (and one of my favorite mystery writers), says her first mystery Still Life was turned down more times than she was willing to admit, even to her agent.

Last year more than 400,000 people took part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWrMo). The annual event challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel during the month of November. Every year hundreds of thousands of novels are begun. A much smaller number are completed. But are they finished? What does it mean to be finished? What does it take?

Taking a novel from the first word to publishable form takes many things: talent, time, effort, a little bit of luck, friends, the ability to receive and profit from criticism, endless revisions, more criticism, more revisions.

And perseverance.


The Last Man Who Knew Everything

Has anyone ever known everything there was to know? Who was the last person to have read every book in existence? Believe it or not, this is a hotly debated question in certain academic circles. Several names are commonly proposed.

AristotleGreek philosopher and scientist ARISTOTLE (384 – 322 B.C.) is said to have known everything there was to be known in his time. Tutor to the youthful Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s own writings cover a virtual encyclopedia of Greek knowledge. But could he read other languages? Was he familiar with the “Hundred Schools of Thought” from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 B.C.) of China, for example? Did he know the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, not translated into Greek until fifty years after his death? Had he read the Epic of Gilgamesh (700 B.C.), fragments of which were discovered in the library ruins of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal? It seems unlikely. To read a book, one must not only know its language; one must know it exists.

If we limit our search to the Western world, then, we might consider Dutch theologian and humanist, DESIDERIUS ERASMUS (1466 – 1536). ErasmusOne of the last scholars prior to the impact of the printing press, Erasmus mastered all the European and Scandinavian languages of his day plus Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Erasmus is reputed to have said, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” But did he accumulate enough money in his lifetime to purchase every book he was capable of reading?

DaVinciLEONARDO DA VINCI (1452 – 1519) is perhaps history’s most recognizable polymath (Latin for “having learned much”). Painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer, DaVinci’s genius epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. His interests were certainly wide-ranging, but did they extend to the intricacies of lace making? Had he studied the history of board games? In a pinch, could he have acted as midwife?

The English poet JOHN MILTON (1608 – 1674),Milton some claim, read virtually every book ever written and knew enough about most things to discuss them with authority. My son has a friend who can do the same.

Goethe JOHANN WOLFGANG von GOETHE (1749 – 1832), author of the epic play Faust, is often called “the last universal genius.” Genius he may have been, but one questions his wisdom. At the age of seventy four, Goethe fell hopelessly in love with beautiful nineteen-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow, who—not surprisingly—rejected him. “Old enough to know better” springs to mind.

Surprisingly, the name most often cited as the last person to have read every book existing in his day is the English poet SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE (1772 – 1834). ColeridgeA little logic proves this impossible. The first pages flew off the Gutenberg press around 1470. By 1700 there were already millions of books in print. To read a million books in a lifetime, you would have to read forty books a day for seventy years. Leaving no time for other things, like writing poetry. And sleeping.

Sometime after 1700 people began to admit that the body of “known knowledge” [is there such a thing, one wonders, as “unknown knowledge”?] had become so large that it was no longer possible for one person to know everything. In his Collective Intelligence (1994), French philosopher Pierre Levy argues that the publication of Denis Diderot and Jean d’Almbert’s Encyclopedie (1751 – 1772) marks “the end of an area in which a single human being was able to comprehend the totality of knowledge.” The totality of knowledge? Really?

Deranged Victorian bibliomane Sir Thomas Phillipps stated that his life goal was to own a copy of every book ever printed. If simply owning books were enough, my mother would have been in the running. No question.






Castles…Castles on Hills

AmsterdamThe first time I laid eyes on the Old World I was twenty. It was a wintry day in January. Junior semester abroad. Amsterdam. The Kalverstraat, the narrow old street that bends its way through the city’s historic center. The old hotel is gone now. Property values are too high.

My friend Patty and I were given one of those old-fashioned rooms on the second floor with a sky-high ceiling, a single sink on the wall, and a dark walnut wardrobe worthy of Narnia. Three tall, narrow windows looked out on the street below. It was dark. Snowflakes drifted lazily from the sky, sparkling in the light of the flickering street lamps. I thought I’d fallen through a rabbit hole and ended up in another century. In that instant, like the baby squirrel who opens her eyes to see a curiously canine mother, I imprinted forever on Europe.

Two years later I married a wonderful man who allowed himself to be talked into spending every cent he’d earned since his fifth grade paper route on a two-and-a-half month ramble through Europe. Fifteen dollars a day we spent, including hotel, food, entertainment, film for our camera, and gas for our tiny green Karmann Ghia. Then real life intruded in the form of jobs, responsibilities, and children. Extra money for travel didn’t exist. My dreams of Europe were neatly folded, covered in tissue, and stored on the closet shelf of memory.

Fast forward to March of 1992 when, armed with four cheapo airplane tickets and two young sons, the Berry family arrived in England for what I hoped would be the spring break of our lives [How to Have the Perfect* European Vacation, Part 2 *Nothing is Perfect). The reality was a long shot from the dream—and much funnier. But one surprising truth emerged: I love Europe in early spring. There are benefits to early spring travel: fewer tourists, lower prices, and no sweating. The downside is the possibility of bad weather, so we arrive prepared with warm jackets, umbrellas, and layers. For us, the pleasures of sunny summer days are met and surpassed by the subtler joys of log fires, cozy down duvets, and a glimpse of life without the ubiquitous tour buses.

Three images evoke “spring in Europe” for me : First, the bare, pollarded trees with their slender green shoots slipping through the knobby winter fists. Then, the symbols of spring–bunnies, eggs, flowers, chickens–adorning every cottage, shop window, inn, and village green. And castles…castles on hills.

I love the castles that dot the hill tops of Europe. My husband says it’s because I’m a Princess, but the real reason I love castles is because I am hopelessly in love with history. Castles allow access into the private lives of people who lived a long, long time ago—rich and powerful people, to be sure. The oldest castles in Europe were essentially stone bastions raised against invaders. Comfort was considered, but only as an afterthought. But then, as life in Europe stabilized, castles evolved into palaces, designed more to impress than defend. And palaces evolved into the stately homes of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. What follows is my short list of favorites—highly edited, utterly personal, and in no special order. You may not agree. I haven’t been to every castle in Europe yet.

1. Konopiště, near Benešov, Czech RepublicKonopiste Castle

Konopiště, located in the woodlands about thirty miles southeast of Prague, is famous as the last residence of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (heir to the Hapsburg throne) whose assassination in Sarajevo triggered World War I. First built in the 1280s as a defensive fortification with a rectangular plan and round towers, the castle was remodeled in 1724 as a French-style chateau and purchased in 1887 by the unfortunate Archduke as a country home for his wife, the Czech countess Sophie, and their three children. The castle and its interior today look just as they did on that day in 1914 when Ferdinand and Sophie were assassinated. One can imagine that the family might return at any moment, demanding to know just what you think you’re doing there. The bullet that killed the Archduke is on display in the castle museum.

2. Llanhydrock, Cornwall, England

LlanhydrockLlanhydrock House was built in 1620 by wealthy merchant Sir Richard Robartes as a four-sided granite structure with a central courtyard. During the 18th century the east wing was demolished, leaving a U-shaped plan. In 1881 a major fire destroyed much of the interior, a tragedy which proved to be an historian’s dream come true. The house was completely refurbished, top to bottom, with the very latest in Victorian plumbing, appliances, and decoration. Shortly afterward the family fortunes declined, leaving no funds for updates or improvements. And so it remained. In 1953 the 7th Viscount Clifden, a bachelor, last of the Robartes, gave the great house and extensive gardens to the National Trust. Today Llanhydrock House is a virtual time capsule of late Victorian life.

3. Prague Castle, Prague, Czech Republic

Prague CastlePražský Hrad is the largest ancient castle complex in the world. Dating from the 9th century, the castle is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The complex, located in the Hradcany district of Prague, consists of a variety of palaces and ecclesiastical buildings in various architectural styles, including the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral and the Romanesque Basilica of St. George. Kept within a hidden room inside the castle proper are the Bohemian Crown Jewels. I fell in love with the castle on a bitterly cold day in March when I warmed my back against an enormous working tile stove dating from the 17th century, closed my eyes, and imagined myself a medieval scullery maid, pausing for moment’s pure comfort.

4. Holyrood House, Edinburgh, Scotland

Holyrood House Located at the eastern end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Holyrood House has served as the principal residence of the Kings and Queens of Scots since the 16th century. According to legend, David I, King of Scots, built an Augustinian abbey there in 1128, which was enlarged and domesticated in 1501 by James IV as a palace for his bride, Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. In the 17th century, the palace was reconstructed in Baroque design with four wings around a central courtyard. Edinburgh Castle is far grander, but I love Holyrood for its associations—not only with the romantic, deluded Bonnie Prince Charlie, who held court at Holyrood Palace during his ill-fated attempt to regain the Scottish throne for the Stuarts, but also with the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots, who spent most of her turbulent life in the palace. Mary’s bed still occupies her bedchamber, and Mary’s tiny oak-paneled oratory still seems to echo with the cries of David Rizzio, Mary’s Italian secretary, brutally murdered by her jealous wastrel of a husband, Lord Darnley. Nearby, in a glass case, is a lock of Mary’s hair and several examples of her fine needlework.

5. Burg Hohenzollern, south of Stuttgart, Germany

Hohenzollern With apologies to Neuschwanstein Castle (the model for Cinderella’s castle at Disney World) and Burg Eltz (the model for Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty movie), my quintessenntial castle is Burg Hohenzollern, the ancestral seat of the Prussian royal family and the Hohenzollern princes. Built in the first decade of the 11th century, the castle was destroyed by fire in the middle of the 15th century and rebuilt, larger and grander than before. By the end of the 18th century, however, the castle lost its strategic importance and fell into disrepair. The third version, which stands today, was rebuilt for King Frederick William IV of Prussia between 1846 and 1867 in the neo-Gothic style—not as a residence but as a family memorial. Crown Prince Wilhelm, the last of the Hohenzollerns, lived in the castle with his wife, Crown Princess Cecilie, for several months following their flight from Potsdam during the closing months of World War II. If you have castle dreams, I promise you that Hohenzollern will bring them to life.

Do you have a favorite castle? I’d love to hear about it.

Long Live the Trees!

Elizabeth and DarcyHow many times have you watched the TV mini-series Pride & Prejudice (1995) with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy? (Men need not reply.)

Confession time: I watch the five-part movie at least once a year with a group of girlfriends over the Labor Day weekend. It’s a tradition. After eighteen years, I can quote long sections of the script by memory.

Pride & PrejudiceIn one of the movie’s pivotal scenes, Elizabeth Bennett has gone with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner on a tour of the Peak District. The Gardiners suggest a visit to Pemberley, the country estate of the Darcy family, and—horror of horrors—Mr. Darcy, who is supposed to be in London, shows up. Elizabeth, assuming that Darcy will be offended by their presumption, is mortified. To her amazement, he is “all ease and friendliness.” Seeing Elizabeth’s companions, he asks for an introduction.

“You are staying at the inn at Lambton, I hear,” Darcy says.

“Yes, sir,” Mrs. Gardiner replies. “I grew up there as a girl.”

“Delightful village. I remember running from Pemberley to Lambton almost every day as a boy during the horse-chestnut season. There was one very fine tree there.”

“On the green. By the smithy.”

England is famous for its fine and ancient trees. Most are found, however, not on village greens or in woodlands but in churchyards and historic parklands where they have plenty of space to grow and “long continuity of benign management.” (Britain’s Tree Story, Ray Hawes, National Trust).

Like all living things, trees have a life span. Unfortunately, England’s great trees are being lost at an alarming rate, victims to disease, storms, vandalism, and old age. Even after trees die, however, they can stand for many years, monuments to the past.

Queen Elizabeth IOne such tree is Queen Elizabeth’s Oak, which stands in the grounds of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. On the seventeenth of November 1558, the young Elizabeth was allegedly sitting beneath its spreading limbs, either eating an apple or reading the Bible (depending on the version) when a messenger arrived from London with the news that Queen Mary had died, making Elizabeth the new queen. “This is the Lord’s doing,” the young Elizabeth is reputed to have said, “and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

In 1846 Queen Victoria took an acorn from the great oak. Queen Elizabeth's Oak 1893By 1935 the tree was on its last legs, propped up and bound with iron rings. The last remnants were finally removed on the seventeenth of November 1978, exactly 420 years after Elizabeth received the news that changed history.

Fortingall YewThe oldest tree in Britain—and reputedly the oldest living organism in Europe—is the Fortingall Yew, which stands near the parish church in Fortingall, Perthshire, Scotland. Recent estimates place the tree’s age at around 5,000 years. This tree witnessed the rise and fall of Greece and Rome. When Stonehenge was built, the Fortingall Yew was already mature. When Jesus Christ was born, the tree was ancient. In 1759, the Fortingall Yew measured an impressive fifty-two feet in girth. Natural decay of the ancient heartwood has turned the once-magnificent trunk into several stems, like individual trees.

Local tradition claims that Fortingall was the birthplace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator in Judea when Jesus was arrested and crucified. According to the legend, Pilate was born when his father visited the local Celtic peoples as emissary from Augustus Caesar. By the seventh century A.D., Fortingall was an important Christian center, the place where missionaries from the island of Jura off Scotland’s west coast came to preach to the Picts. Even then the Fortingall Yew would have been of significant size.

The greatest threat to the venerable tree has been relic hunters who, in the past, removed large branches to make drinking cups and other curiosities. Fortunately, the Fortingall Yew is now protected by a low stone wall. It remains in reasonably good health, producing abundant foliage. Cuttings taken by Britain’s Forestry Commission are being propagated for planting elsewhere, including a proposed mile-long hedge at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.

Long live the Fortingall Yew—a very fine tree indeed.